When Stress Strikes

Stress is inevitable; we can't avoid it. In fact, it can be argued that stress is the spice of life. Without some stress, life would be dull, indeed. Major life events - the birth of a child, the death of a parent, relocation or retirement - can increase stress. Some of these events are positive and some are negative. Too many major events in a short period of time can lead to stress overload. Likewise, daily strains such as rush hour traffic and cranky children can pile up and raise our stress level to the danger zone.

Daily strains and major life events are called stressors. Stressors trigger a stress reaction but do not necessarily cause stress. Each individual has a different stress reaction to a particular stressor depending on:

  • the way the stressor is perceived
  • the level of control that is felt
  • the individual's ability to cope

For example, one parent may perceive a child's defiance as a personal affront, while another parent may see the same behavior as a normal part of development. The parent who takes defiance personally may experience strong emotions, including stress.

Some coping techniques are not helpful. Some parents fight. They argue, yell, hit, or throw things. Others withdraw. They sulk, oversleep, overeat, watch too much television, or get drunk. Healthy coping techniques that enable us to adapt to and regain control of a stressful situation are helpful. Some effective coping techniques include:

  • talking about a problem
  • using a step-by-step problem solving approach
  • asking for help
  • building a support network of family and friends


Become aware of your stress symptoms
There are many physical, emotional and behavioral warning signs when stress strikes. You may have an upset stomach or a headache. You may feel angry or lonely. You may procrastinate or take medication. Some people have typical stress reactions like migraine headaches. When you notice these symptoms, ask yourself, "Why am I stressed out?"

Identify and clarify stressors
After recognizing stress and its symptoms, try to determine what's triggering the stress reaction. Try to look at stressors rationally and decide (a) whether or not there is a problem and (b) how much control you actually have. For example, you may have real concern but little control over grandfather's terminal illness. Continuing to be upset and stressed out by his illness is not helpful. What you can control is how you spend your remaining time with him.
Reduce tension and relieve pressure

When stress strikes and you feel like lashing out or running away, STOP. Don't do something you'll regret later or will cause you greater stress. And don't take it out on your family. Try these stressbreakers instead.

  • Take time out. Put your child in a safe area and go to another room for a few minutes.
  • Breathe deeply and deliberately for a count of five.
  • Count to 10 or 100. Or recite the alphabet backwards.
  • Take a chill pill. Put an ice cube in your mouth, apply a cool washcloth to your face or drink a tall glass of cold water.
  • Set aside time for yourself. Forget what you "should" be doing and do what you want to do: read, write letters, watch a favorite television program, take a bubble bath.

Take care of yourself
Fatigue, caffeine, smoking, alcohol and overeating can increase the intensity of your stress symptoms. Take a look at your daily habits and try to make the following changes:

  • Reduce consumption of caffeine-packed coffee, tea, cola and chocolate
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Reduce sugar intake
  • Eliminate smoking
  • Maintain desirable weight
  • Eat a variety of foods in a balanced diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get sufficient sleep
  • Take time to pursue personal interests

Make a commitment to change
In addition to changing your daily health habits, you may want to make other changes to reduce stress. Here are some changes that can help parents.

  • Change your attitude. Nobody's perfect, so why try to be? Avoid unrealistic expectations for yourself, your spouse and your children.
  • Get yourself organized. Learn to manage your time more effectively and to do household tasks more creatively. Enlist the cooperation of your spouse and children.
  • Make realistic plans to solve major worries like financial problems.
  • Inject a little humor and fun into family life. It's a great antidote to stress.

When stress strikes - and it will - parents must be prepared to cope effectively to reduce its impact on the family. Chronic or overwhelming stress can ruin relationships, health and our ability to parent.

Source: Tim Jahn, Human Development Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 35


Anna Steinkraus
Family & Community Development Program Coordinator
(607) 272-2292 ext. 145

Last updated August 8, 2015